Terrorism as Performance Art

(The Art of the Possible, 30 Aug 2013)

Brecht Savelkoul ·

It definitely wasn’t the most diplomatic thing to say on 16 September 2001. On that day Karlheinz Stockhausen went from being a modern classical composer of enormous stature, an early pioneer of electronic music, to an intellectual pariah. From that point until his death in 2007, his monumental career was eclipsed by a single quote about the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Tact aside though, this controversial quote remains the most interesting, challenging, and indeed instructive analysis of the events to date. According to Stockhausen, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that week were “the greatest work of art that ever existed”.

For this he was understandably ostracised back then, but it’s about time we forgive him for it. Not only to restore his well-deserved status as a true Black Swan figure in the development of electronic music, but more importantly because he was right. Although his words remain shocking even after twelve years — let alone at the time, a mere six days after the attacks — they are fundamentally correct. We shouldn’t see terrorist attacks as acts of war, but as art. To see why, let’s move beyond the soundbite and look into the full answer he gave at that fateful press conference.

“What happened there is, is of course — now you all have to adjust your brains — the greatest work of art that has ever existed. That spirits achieve in one act something we could never dream of in music, that people practice like mad for ten years, totally fanatically, for one concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. These are people who are so concentrated on this single performance—and then five thousand people are driven into resurrection. In one moment. I couldn’t do that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers that is.”

If Al Qaeda were a conceptual art collective, they’d have been over the moon with that smashing review. Actually, they are more like an art collective than you’d think. Definitely more so than they are like, say, a conventional army. Have you ever heard a conventional general publicly claiming responsibility for a successful surprise attack? Also, the way new and very different offshoots of their network appear and disappear is more reminiscent of an artistic movement than an army — see for example how many very different kinds of writers, painters, and sculptors have gathered under the flag of “surrealism”. Moreover, terrorists aren’t like guerrilla fighters either, because guerilla fighters still aim to win strategic victories over the enemy. Terrorist attacks don’t do that. Strategically speaking, even 9/11 itself didn’t affect the military and political power of the U.S. in the world. Rather, the battle terrorists try to win is a cultural one. They want to convince us (the audience) that we should be afraid of them (the actors) by putting up a terrifying show (the act of terror) to make us listen to their message. That’s not just like performance art, that is performance art.

It seems Stockhausen was right after all; terrorists are performance artists. If you disagree with this premise you can stop reading here, because I will use this as the cornerstone for the rest of my article. (Do skip to the comments section though, to tell the world why you disagree. Or just to point out that this outrageous claim makes me literally worse than Hitler.) Still here? Great, then let’s consider the next — and far more important — issue: If terrorism is art, we can’t defeat it militarily. And if we can’t defeat it militarily, then what should we do about it? As well as alerting us to this problem, the legacy of Karlheinz Stockhausen contains some possible answers to this question.

The Wagnerian Response

Sometimes a single movie scene can capture an entire essay. In this case it’s one of the most famous scenes in film history — so famous that people who haven’t actually seen the movie can still use its imagery in their articles — and it reminds me of Stockhausen’s ideas about art and violence. I’m talking about the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now. When the squadron approaches the targeted village, they start playing Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries at full volume through their speakers, to boost the morale of their own men, but at the same time also to terrify their Vietnamese targets. The most disturbing part of the scene is how the music draws you to the side of the attackers rather than the victims; it makes you feel complicit. Now imagine the same score played underneath footage of the 9/11 attacks…

So if we go along with Stockhausen, the ideal soundtrack for ultra-violence is Richard Wagner, better than “a bit of the old Ludwig Van”. But looking solely at the Apocalypse Now scene does create an unfair caricature of Wagner’s work. A much more representative introduction for the Wagner novice is the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon What’s Opera, Doc?. You’ll hear music that contains much more nuances and variety than the aggressive horn section introducing Kill Da Wabbit! would make you believe. Neither do Wagner’s librettos only sing the praise of the kind of belligerent mythical heroes we now refer to as “Wagnerian”. (N.B. Wagner is one of the very few big opera composer who also wrote the librettos himself.) For instance, he also created a character called Walther von Stolzing, a young knight who wins the hand of a beautiful woman by winning a singing contest. He does so by beating a conservative pedant called Beckmesser with a very unconventional, experimental song. That all sounds like a bit of harmless fun, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, Walther is the protagonist of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the opera that became the direct inspiration for the infamous Nazi rallies in the same city.

And that brings home Stockhausen’s criticism of Wagnerian art. According to him, it’s not outspoken aggressiveness that’s the problem. Rather, he believed that any form of emotion in art would eventually lead to violent reactions in real life. It was the highly emotional style of the German Romantic art in the nineteenth century that according to him formed the breeding ground for totalitarian ideologies and violent German nationalism in the next century. He wanted to avoid this from happening again by creating a new kind of music. In the early 1950s he started writing music that was deliberately sterile and scientific, devoid of any personal expression or ideology. Taking this approach back to my terrorism-as-performance-art argument, it gives us some very straightforward advice on how to deal with terrorist attacks. If we follow this line the only good response is stoicism, as an emotional reaction would only lead to more violence and extremism in the long run.

This “Stockhausen solution” is never going to work. It is bio- and psychologically impossible to “switch off” emotions, especially in cases as extreme as acts of terror. That is unless we’d find a way to do this through our scientific superiority. We could try to advance our understanding of psychiatry and social psychology to a level where we learn to tame our instincts; we could even try to genetically modify them out of our systems. But of course, this would never happen voluntarily. I for one wouldn’t queue for any of these treatments.

Even if it were possible to eliminate our strongest emotions concerning terrorism — be it by science, technology, or Zen Buddhism — the Stockhausen solution would be admitting defeat; it would go in against every notion we hold about freedom and human rights. And those are the reason why we’re fighting these guys in the first place — the “we” in this sentence including the entire Western world except Dick Cheney. So it seems like we (this time including Dick Cheney) are doomed to remain Wagnerian in our responses to terrorism, because we just can’t change those without surrendering the very principles we’re trying to defend.

A Critical Response

In this piece, I’ve tried to find a new way to win the War on Terror. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a fruitless and rather disturbing quest. In the first part we established that it would be more appropriate to stop seeing terrorists as enemy combatants and start treating them as performance artists instead. If that wasn’t uncomfortable enough yet, the second part made things even worse. We found out that this new approach — seeing terrorism as performance art — would lead us to an unattainable ideal of extreme stoicism when faced with terrorist attacks. The “Stockhausen solution” didn’t turn out to be much of a solution in the end. Time to cancel our production line of “WWSD?” bumper stickers, I guess.

Unless… maybe we got things the wrong way around? Maybe it’s not the internal qualities of a work of art that define its appeal. After all, Wagner’s bad reputation has very little to do with the intrinsic emotionality of his music; it has everything to do with the fact that in 1850 he himself published an anti-semitic rant against Jewish influence on German music, which urged critics to start interpreting his work in this light. Without this moronic piece of drivel, grumpy old Richard would probably be considered one of the very best composers of all time, sharing lonely heights with maybe only Bach. Because of this essay though, he’s been given a much more modest spot in the Classical Music Hall of Fame. The stoic Stockhausen got burned in an ironically similar way: he instantly lost over half a century of critical acclaim with the very quote I started this story with. His music didn’t enter into it! So if terrorists are like performance artists, the same rules must apply to them: it’s not their actions that determine their impact, it’s the way we receive them.

So WWSD? And WWWD? Getting hammered by critics, that’s what both Stockhausen and Wagner would do. And that is why we should stop getting into full GI-Joe-mode in the face of terrorist threats, and instead be the most pretentious art critics imaginable. Let’s tweet, blog, or talk about those bastards. Let’s do so calmly or animated, with disgust or with contempt; the “how” doesn’t really matter. Or maybe just ignore them, if that’s what you prefer. The only thing you shouldn’t do is take terrorists seriously. Think about it this way: imagine if German society after 1924 had taken the example of the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts in its treatment of a certain Adolf H.; modern history could have taken a completely different course. So let’s start reviewing the underwear bombers of this world like the shitty performance artists they are: “Your terrorism is bad, and you should feel bad!”

Special thanks to Jan De Schutter for granting me unlimited access to the musicological library in his brain.